The last year has been monumental for Homegrown defender Sam Vines.
First, he earned his first cap for the U.S. Men’s National Team following his first senior team call up. Then, he was the only player on the Rapids to play every minute of the regular season. He also scored his first goal and notched his first assist in MLS.
December saw him earn another national team call-up and another cap. Now, he’s in Bradenton, Fla., at the USMNT combined senior team and U-23 camp. And he's found himself in prime position for the starting left back spot for the U-23s heading into Olympic qualification.
“Sam is a really interesting player from my point of view because he really wasn’t on anyone’s radar about a year and a half ago,” U-23 head coach Jason Kreis said. “Through the opportunity he’s been given with the Rapids, he’s shown he’s quite a capable player, beyond his years, really, as an outside back in MLS.”
While right back has the likes of DeAndre Yedlin, Sergiño Dest and Reggie Cannon, the leaders for left back are a bit less certain, for the Olympic team and the senior team.
“I think left fullback is an area we continue to kind of look for the answer for the long term,” Kreis said. “Sam falls into the category where you start to think could he be a solution for the full team going forward, maybe still a little bit away from that, but I do think he’s making himself more and more a candidate for that.”
Vines was called to his first camp in 2019 after playing over 2,000 minutes for the Rapids that season and showing a defensive fortitude that allowed him to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Carlos Vela. A big part of his ongoing attraction for the USMNT is his clear ability to take instruction and improve.
“After the camp, they tell you what you need to work on for the next time they see you,” Vines explained. “From last camp, they wanted me to go forward more and help in the attack more, so I’ve been working positionally on how to get up the field, help our team get some goals, get assists, help the team as well as I can. Also defensively just being in the right position. I think, overall, it’s just attacking and helping the team get more production in the final third.”
Last season, Vines' total of four combined goals and assists led all Rapids defenders.
“He has a real good knack for when to get forward, his timing in when to join attacks, and the service that he provides has been really quite good,” Kreis said. “I’ve been impressed with him.”
The Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship was originally set to take place in March of 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic. Then, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed to 2021. So, now, Vines has another opportunity to be a part of qualification and Olympic teams.
“It’s fortunate for me that last year was a good year for me, and I got to be in with the men’s team a few times, so I think that helped me kind of see how it is to be with the men’s national team, how it would be if I was with the U-23s for the Olympics,” Vines said. “I think it was a big step for me last year, to be in that fortunate situation, and I took advantage.”
Chris Gloster was the only true left back on the previous qualifying roster. Gloster currently plays for PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands but only made six appearances in 2020. Real Salt Lake’s Aaron Herrera is known to be versatile between right and left back, but he had significantly less offensive production in 2020 than Vines, with only one assist.
“[Vines] pushed his way into the scene” Kreis said. “Every time we’ve had him, we’ve been more and more impressed.”
While the new schedule for the qualification tournament has yet to be announced, the team anticipates that it will follow a similar schedule and be in the same location as last year, according to Kreis. That means the team would play at the end of March in Guadalajara.
If this schedule holds true, one can expect a roster to be named in the beginning of March, as last year’s roster was announced on March 8. Another key detail here is the fact that clubs are not required to release their players for the Olympics because it is not a full senior international tournament. This could mean European-based players like Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Juventus’ Weston McKennie won't participate.
If Vines is named to the qualifying roster, which looks more and more likely, he’s not out of the woods yet. The team will still have to battle to make the Olympic Games, which hasn’t happened since 2008. In addition, while the Olympic roster is likely to be extremely similar to the qualifying squad, they are not guaranteed to be the same.
However, uncertainty doesn’t seem to deter Vines. In the midst of so many questions in 2020, he had his most successful year yet.
It feels safe to say the best is yet to come.